I am different. I always was. To my mother, I seemed like an alien. While my sisters swooned over colorful pagnes that our father’s employee brought each year for the celebration at the end of Ramadan, fighting to claim the color that best suited, I would arrive well behind everyone else, take the pagne that no one else wanted, and leave, bored, to plunge back into my books. While my sisters discontinued their studies as early as possible, not wanting to disobey my father, and agreed to marry the men that he or one of my uncles chose for them (they were more interested in the material aspects of marriage, the gifts or the interior design of their future home), I stubbornly persisted in going to high school. I explained to the women of the family my ambition to become a pharmacist, which made them burst into laughter. They called me crazy and bragged about the virtues of marriage and the life of a homemaker.
When I doubled down on the fulfillment that a woman could find in the pleasure of having a job, driving her car, or managing her property, they abruptly cut off the conversation, advising me sharply to come back down to earth, to reality.
For them, the greatest possible joy was to marry a rich man who would shelter them from need, offer them pagnes and jewels and a house full of trinkets and—most important—maids. An idle life spent amid the four walls of a beautiful compound. For a successful marriage is measured by the number of gold jewels worn ostentatiously at every festive opportunity. And a woman’s happiness is achieved through her travels to Mecca and Dubai, through her numerous children and her beautiful interior decoration. The best husband is not the one who cherishes, but the one who protects and is generous. It is inconceivable that things could be otherwise.
To the great displeasure of my mother, certain that only marriage was suitable for a woman, and to the total indifference of my father, who never knew anything about our activities, I turned out to be very gifted.
It was one of my father’s employees who kept track of our studies, at least those of the children whose mothers had been vigilant and open enough to require it. “Kept track” is a bit of a stretch. He was content simply to enroll the youngest in school and buy the supplies we needed. Whether we moved up a grade or had to repeat a year didn’t matter to him, since it also didn’t matter to anyone in the family. Only my father’s latest conquest cared, for she was also the only one to have attended high school.
My brothers and sisters all stopped going to school when they encountered the slightest difficulty: a bad grade, a repeat year, a disagreement with a teacher. And it elicited no comment from our parents. That was in fact the fate of all the young people in the city. The boys ended up assisting my father or my uncles in their stores, where they learned the shopkeeping trade on the job. As for the girls, they stayed home, dolling themselves up, reading the Quran, and patiently waiting for our father to find them a husband. The luckiest, which is to say the prettiest, who thus had the most suitors, could choose for themselves—on condition that the man met Baaba’s expectations, of course.
We wear a uniform in all the middle and high schools in the city, but like all the Muslim women, in case I cross paths with a man of the family on the way, I wear a pagne over my uniform and cover my head with a scarf that I remove upon entering the school. Since fifth grade, I’ve watched my friends and classmates get married one after another. In primary school, there were fifty of us; now there are only ten. But for me, as for the others, it’s just a matter of time. A crowd of suitors has courted me since I was thirteen. I am considered beautiful in our country. Light, almost pale skin, silky and long hair, delicate features. Invariably, when a man asks for my hand, I tell him to wait. Always the same response, a litany.
“Yes, I want to marry you, but not right away! I’m still in school, you see. Maybe in two or three years. . .”
Custom forbids girls from rejecting a suitor. Even if we are not interested, we must nevertheless avoid offending a man.
Invariably, they reply:
“Two years! But you’ll be an old girl by then, my pretty. What use is it for you to pass the baccalaureate? The most important thing for a girl is to be married. I’m in too much of a rush to wait two years. You’re not thinking clearly. I’ll go to see your father and ask for your hand.”
“I’m asking for a bit of time to reflect.”
“Ah! You’re saying that because you don’t like me!”
I want to shout: “How could I like you? I don’t even know you. And I don’t want to know you.”
But, since I’m a well-educated girl who knows her pulaaku like the back of her hand, I lower my eyes timidly and respond:
“I do! Of course I like you, but I still want to wait a bit.”
All this makes my mother’s blood boil.
“Are you crazy, Ramla? You’re out of your mind. If that’s what they teach you in school, you won’t be going back. What’s wrong with that one? Why did you refuse him? What shame! What a curse! You’ve been bewitched! My word, what misfortune! Your little sister Hindou will be married before you. What shame, my God! Have you no pity for your poor mother? Do you want Hindou’s mother, your stepmother, to mock me even more? A man so young and so well off! What’s gotten into you? What are you looking for exactly? You’ve refused the younger ones and the older ones, the rich and the civil servants—even the monogamists! I should tell your father to set you up. In fact, keep this up and you won’t have the luxury to choose your husband. Your father or one of your uncles will gladly take care of it for you. . .”
This continues for a long time. My mother never stops lamenting, desperate to make me hear reason. She calls my older brothers and married sisters as witnesses. She complains to my aunts. And all of them persist for days and days in trying to convince me. The newcomer always has all the desirable virtues. He’s the best choice for me.
One day, to everyone’s surprise, I did not refuse. His name was Aminou. He was my brother Amadou’s best friend. He often came to the house. And we hit it off. He was the only boy I spoke to without suffering the reprisals of my brothers, who had proclaimed themselves our protectors. He was studying telecommunications in Tunisia and hoped to become an engineer. When his father asked for my hand, my father found no reason to say no. My mother was ecstatic, I had shown no resistance. Finally! And for me, it was like a dream come true. Soon, he and I would be married. Soon, in a few years, at the University of Tunis, he would become an engineer and I would become a pharmacist. We would be happy. Far from everything. Far from here!
My dreams were short-lived. When Uncle Hayatou informed my father that their most important business partner had asked for my hand and he had granted it, my father not only accepted but thanked him warmly. Hayatou, the richest of the brothers, watched over the family’s well-being, and for that he was respected. My father would never have thought to oppose his brother’s decision, even concerning one of his own children. I was not just my father’s daughter. I was the daughter of all the family. And each of my uncles could manage me as their own child. It was out of the question for me to disagree. I was their daughter. I had been raised according to tradition, taught the strict respect that I owed my elders.
My mother was tasked with breaking the news. I had noticed during the night that she was preoccupied by some worry. She waited until late at night, when the compound was plunged into darkness, to gently awaken me. She didn’t want our conversation to fall on indiscreet ears. Her co-wives, dogged rivals, were always waiting for an occasion to point out her weaknesses. They couldn’t know that she or one of her children was having an issue. She also couldn’t rouse their jealousy, at risk of sending them rushing to the nearest marabout to undermine this new blessing.
The gravity of her expression made me fear the worst. I sat up immediately.
“Mother, what’s going on?”
“Nothing bad, quite the opposite. Nothing but happiness! Alhamdulillah! Your good fortune awakens. Finally, I can lift my head with pride, and it’s thanks to you. Finally, my dignity is solidified. But I am not surprised. I knew you would have an exceptional life.”
“What do you mean?”
“Your uncle Hayatou granted your hand to another. You won’t be marrying Aminou. Your father wanted you to know.”
“Who is it?”
“Alhadji Issa! The most important man in town. You’re trading up. My only concern is that he already has a wife. I would have preferred to spare you from polygamy. I suffer from it every day. But, in any event, if you don’t find a woman upon entering your home, another one will catch up to you sooner or later. Better to find one than wait around for another! A new bride who will make more than one person pale with envy and jealousy in this wolves’ den. I already have to protect you from those witches, your stepmothers.”
“But Diddi, I don’t even know him!”
“He knows you. Apparently, he absolutely insisted on marrying you. Your father is very proud, you know.”
“But I love Aminou! He’s the one I want to marry.”
“Love doesn’t exist before marriage, Ramla. It’s time you come back down to earth. We’re not white. We’re not Hindu either. Now you understand why your father didn’t want you all to watch those TV shows! You will do what your father and your uncles tell you. You don’t have a choice. Spare yourself from useless worry, my girl. Spare me, too. Don’t kid yourself, the slightest disobedience on your part will inevitably come back to bite me.”
She continued for a long time in this tone, drying her eyes occasionally, while I cried frantically, stifling the sound of my sobs in the folds of my pagne.
“There’s no use getting so worked up. You are lucky, and I am, too. Trust in my experience as a woman. You are too young to understand the importance of such an alliance. Marriage isn’t just about love. The most important thing for a woman is to be sheltered from need. Protected, idolized.
“Your potential husband is first and foremost the father of your future children. You have to be mindful of his nobility, his family, his comportment, his social status. So dry your eyes and go back to bed.
“Pray to Allah. He is opening the best doors for you. And, above all, do not show the slightest sign of disappointment in the presence of the other women of the family. If your destiny is to marry him, you will not escape it. And if your destiny is to marry another, you won’t change anything on that front either. Everything is in the hands of the Creator. Pray that He grant you the best outcome.”
A few days after this announcement, my uncle Hayatou called me to meet this man who had apparently noticed me among the school procession on Youth Day and had decided to make me his second wife. He entered my uncle’s living room, cavalier. Dressed in a rich gandoura with flashy embroidery, he was opulence incarnate. He never stopped smiling and stared at me shamelessly. I sat far from him, at the very edge of the rug, and kept my head lowered. Not once did I lift my eyes to look at him. Alongside my proper education that required I practice restraint was a repressed desire for revolt. I had not chosen him. I wasn’t given the chance to accept or refuse him. It was thus pointless whether I liked him or not. This meeting was for his satisfaction alone. For him to be able to look at me as he pleased and confirm his first furtive impressions.
I kept quiet and didn’t answer his questions. It would certainly take a lot more than that to dampen his enthusiasm—he spoke enough for us both!
“All those young men courting you,” he began, “are nothing but lowlifes. They drink, they smoke, they take drugs. With me you’ll be an important woman and you’ll have everything you desire. Here’s an idea! I’ll take you to Mecca this year and, since you’re educated, you’ll come with me on my next trip to Europe. We’ll be married quickly. I would have liked to be married even sooner but I understand you want to finish the school year. You’re in your final year, that’s very good! You’re an intellectual that I can bring with me to official ceremonies. You’ll make me proud, how wonderful!”
He continued his monologue for a long time. He didn’t ask my opinion. It was unthinkable to him that I wouldn’t want to marry him.
Yes, that would have been inconceivable.
What girl would refuse such an important man? It was a done deal. He had discussed it with my uncle. The rest was just a formality.
Excerpted from The Impatient by Djaïli Amadou Amal, translated by Emma Ramadan. Copyright © 2020 by Emmanuelle Collas. Translation copyright © 2022 by Emma Ramadan. By arrangement with HarperVia.